Mi Pueblito, Kearny
“There are 365 ways to prepare a mole poblano in Mexico,” says Silvia Cazares, who opened this colorfully festooned, wood-beamed retreat in 2009 with her husband, Erasto. “The authentic mole poblano is sweet, but ours is not sweet, and it’s a bit spicy.” Mahogany-colored mole poblano is the signature mole of the state of Puebla, from where the Cazareses (like much of New Jersey’s Mexican population) emigrated. Some mole poblanos are thick as honey; Mi Pueblito’s is smoothly soupier, intoxicating in its aromas and depth of flavor. It fills the broad, round, ceramic bowl it’s served in, yet there is plenty of moist, flavor-saturated chicken to ladle out (and plenty of rice and beans on the side to soak up the complex sauce). Mi Pueblito also makes sumptuous, meat-packed tamales and another harder-to-find, form of corn heaven, picaditas—thick, handmade discs of masa dough with a variety of toppings. One of its simplest and most refreshing dishes is ensalada de aguacate con camerón, a pinwheel of avocado slices and lightly sautéed, gently spicy shrimp over lettuce, eager to be anointed with squeezes of fresh lime.—EL
412 Kearny Avenue, 201-991-3330; BYO.
Punto y Coma, New Brunswick
The walls are lime green above white tile, the tablecloths orange under clear plastic. The little storefront’s big windows brighten all three colors. Equally vibrant is the food, largely from Mexico City. Alberto Garcia and Estella Jiménez left there decades ago, raised their family here and opened Punto y Coma in 2005. Their son, José Garcia, 45, runs it now. He estimates that 90 percent of their customers are Latino.
“The locals like the tamales; we have a huge variety of flavors,” he says. “We make them fresh every day, of good size.”
The staff seems to speak no English, but the vibe is friendly. The popular sopa de res (beef soup) is enriched with pumpkin, cabbage, cilantro, epazote (a pungent herb), onions, garlic, carrots and squash. Another classic, enchiladas verdes—stuffed with shredded chicken in tangy green sauce, topped with shredded lettuce and squiggles of crema—exemplifies the generosity of Mexican cooking.—EL
179 French Street, 732-565-9857; BYO.
San Pedro Tierra, Bellmawr
Come hungry; the best-selling Fiesta Mexicana consists of bisteck asado (grilled steak), two chicken flautas, a quesadilla, tomatoes, onions, jalapeños, cheese, and rice and beans, all for $11. Business partners Alvaro Bonilla and Nancy Tepoz, both from Puebla, pride themselves on regional specialties like mole poblano. But the must-try, not found on every Mexican menu, is huitlacoche quesadillas. Huitlacoche, a naturally occurring corn fungus, swells kernels and turns them black. One of its kinder nicknames is Mexican truffle, for its earthy umami. San Pedro Tierra mingles huitlacoche (fresh, not canned) with Oaxaca cheese in a folded tortilla that reaches the edges of the plate.
There is much more to enjoy on the huge menu, from tortas to tacos to enchiladas to a caldo de camarón (shrimp soup) that could feed a family. As if his dedication to huitlacoche weren’t proof enough, chef Hector Medina makes few concessions to timid eaters; the shrimp in that rich, crimson broth still wear their body armor and spiky pink helmets.—AE
115 S Black Horse Pike, 856-931-2072; BYO.
The Taco Shop, Rio Grande
There are two kinds of flights you can take at the Cape May Airport. Only one lifts your spirit while leaving your feet on the ground. That is the Taco Shop, piloted by Lucas Manteca, chef of the NJM Top 25 restaurant Red Store, and Maria Fox of Pickle Girl Pickles, both located in nearby Cape May Point. The design, by Manteca’s wife, Deanna Ebner, conjures up an authentic Mexican mercado, or market.
Everything is made in-house, from the corn tortillas to the spice rubs to the aguas frescas, the latter including the novel agua piña, with pineapple, cucumber, lime and honey. Instead of topping each taco meat with the standard chopped cilantro and raw onion, here each gets a tailor-made partner: pork shoulder is crowned with caramelized onions and pineapple; lamb barbacoa with pickled carrots and salsa borracha (“drunken”); carne asada (brisket) with cherry tomatoes, avocado, pickled red onions and creamy chimichurri. All the tacos (chicken, sausage, shrimp, mahi-mahi, vegetable) can be ordered as a burrito, quesadilla, rice bowl or salad bowl. Desserts, by patissier Michel Gras, who runs Manteca’s Little Store Bakery in Cape May, are varied and marvelous.—ED
1288 Hornet Road, 609-849-9045.
Taqueria Downtown, Jersey City
A taco truck that used to park across from City Hall drew such long lines that finally, in 2005, the owners leased a corner storefront a couple blocks south. Phillip and Andrea Barraza now also own a Taqueria catering company and a Taqueria in Manhattan, and will soon open a branch in Passaic.
For all that, the original establishment still rocks in style and substance. “I’m really into L.A. pop culture,” says Phillip, 49, a native Angeleno, explaining the Lakers and Dodgers paraphernalia and L.A. road signs on the walls. Janis Joplin, the Doors and the Beatles dominate the soundtrack.
For the palate, the attractions begin with the array of fresh-made salsas and the terrific tacos. When the couple first opened the restaurant, their Mexican-born mothers flew in armed with family recipes to help expand the menu. A Mexican beer would go great with all of it. The Barrazas give you 10 to choose from.—FS
236 Grove Street; 201-333-3220.
Taquitos Buenaventura, Long Branch
Buenaventura means “a good adventure,” in Spanish, “and that is what we want you to have at the restaurant,” says Gerardo Vazquez, chef/owner of this modestly furnished but pleasing eatery. When you sit down, you get one of the more generous setups around: a bowl of chips in the three colors of the Mexican flag, a generous cup of salsa verde, another of salsa rojos, and one of lime wedges. Though Taquitos means “little tacos,” the tacos are generously filled, and the meats in the al pastor and lengue—the ones we tried—were first-rate. Vazquez, 40, worked at restaurants in his native Puebla for 14 years before coming to the United States in 1996 and ascending from dishwasher to cook to founder and proprietor of Taquitos. His flan is notable, ditching the usual density for a subtly sweet, eggy lightness.—EL
10 Third Avenue, 732-222-6804; BYO.
Chef Adam Rose, a Nutley native whose father is Italian and mother is Polish, worked his way up in ambitious Jersey restaurants, then fell in love with Mexican food in Mexico. Filtered through a modern sensibility and dedicated study, “Villalobos,” he says, “is a collection of my travels.” (Read more about Villalobos in our review.)
6 S Fullerton Avenue, 973-337-6667; BYO.